Former boxer and, now, former convict, Alex Whale, is struggling on the outside. His former agent and his own family would jump at the chance to see Alex “Blue” Whale back in the ring—if only for the earning potential of a few comeback rounds. But Alex is loathe to go back to the fame of being a world-class boxer. The trappings of fame itself are what led him down the primrose path to self destruction that ended not just his marriage to his highschool sweetheart, but people’s lives.
Alex has paid his dues to society and is ready to get back on his feet. The bedsit organized for him upon his release from prison and the deadend job aren’t ideal, but they’re a start. There is a silver lining in the arrangements: one of Alex’s new flatmates, Chris, is stunningly attractive and reminds Alex he’s not as straight as the hypermasculine world of competitive boxing demanded he be.
Chris is only twenty-seven years old and they are weary of so much. They are tired of selling sex to make a living, just like they’re tired of the endless stream of thugs their landlord allows to share the bedsit. They need a change, but for someone who’s decidedly queer, undereducated, and works in the sex industry…well, options seem very limited. Feeling attraction towards the latest parolee to waltz into the flat isn’t new, but the fact that this Alex guy listens and pays attention to Chris’s pronouns and moods is a welcome change.
But the lives of a former sports star who fell from grace and a genderfluid person in a gender binary world are never easy. Alex and Chris will need more than attraction and proximity if they hope to make a real go of having a relationship.
Blue Jay is a book that takes you on a journey. I enjoyed how both story and characters are not boxed in by convention. Chris’ changing pronouns are one example of this. Sometimes, Chris identifies as a woman, sometimes a man, sometimes as both or neither. I liked how this facet of Chris’ person flows from scene to scene. It’s telling that Chris sometimes assumes a specific role because they know it’ll make navigating a social situation easier (like when Chris first meets Alex’s family). Similarly, there are no big scenes where someone meets Chris for the first time and there is the pronoun talk. Also, I got the impression that depictions of Chris’ gender were largely controlled by them. To be sure, there are many points where outsiders try to rob Chris of their agency, but on the whole, I felt like I got to know how Chris identified from the character themself.
I thought it was an interesting choice to make Alex a bisexual. His backstory and current emotional state (i.e. he suffers from depression) are deeply tied to the relationship and death of his high school sweetheart, who happened to be female. I thought there was much less overt attention on Alex’s sexuality, even though it’s clear he gets railroaded/chose to present as 100% cis-het, alpha male during his life prior to being incarcerated. The book actually starts with Alex getting out of prison and it was clear early on that he is at least bisexual. Given the fact that at least some aspects of queer expression are known, acknowledged, and accepted by Alex, it was interesting to watch him flounder in his interactions with Chris. I got the sense that Alex wasn’t really aware or observant of Chris’ gender expression early on—-though by the end of the book, Alex seems to have developed the ability to just know how Chris felt (gender wise) any particular day.
Overall, I thought these two “messy” characters fit together very well. Especially as their relationship grows, we see that Alex is absolutely capable of loving again and doing so while managing his depression (not to mention his own demons about his role in his deceased wife’s death). As I think back on the dynamic, it seems like Alex is unconditionally supportive of Chris and their choices—all of them, from supporting themselves through sex work, to going back to school, and more. Chris feels more aloof if only because they’ve never really had a loving relationship before, not even with their own mother. Whatever challenges they face, it’s clear these two are stronger together and there are some incredibly challenging and touching scenes that demonstrate to the reader just how deeply these two feel for one another.
As far as the story organization itself goes, I was a bit thrown by the lack of a quick finish after a big climactic scene. The scene includes semi-graphic description of sexual assault and ends with someone getting shot. Where I feel like most books would wrap things up pretty quickly after that, this is just a major event in the lives of Chris and Alex. I thought Zukowski’s approach to this was a bit unorthodox, but in retrospect, not making The Scene Where Someone Got Shot the most important scene in the book helped me, at least, focus on the bigger picture: the growing, deepening relationship between Alex and Chris as their dissimilar lives continue to mesh together.
For any readers who are interested in queer representation, and especially in genderfluid and bisexual characters, I think this is a great book for exploring those themes. Zukowski offers thoughtful depictions of genderqueer life, sex work, and touches somewhat on living with depression. There are a few dramatic scenes, but most of the action is driven by the delightfully dimensional main characters.
Note: Chris uses a variety of pronouns within the book, including male, female, and gender neutral. For the purposes of clarity in the review, we have chosen to use only the gender neutral pronouns here.